“My 18-year-old daughter had an eating disorder all through middle and high school. She just came back from her first semester of college and came out to my husband and I. Did one cause the other?”
Question Submitted Anonymously
Answered by Grace Manger
Hello! Thank you so much for this question. Eating disorders in the LGBTQIA community do not get the conversational airtime they so greatly warrant, considering the high rates of eating disorders in the LGBT community—so let’s dive in!
While I don’t think we can draw perfect lines of causation between our life experiences, I can talk to you a bit about my own experience as a gay woman with an eating disorder. But remember: eating disorders are caused by such a wide array of psychological, biological, social, emotional, and interpersonal factors.
My own struggles with various eating disorders have become a core part of who I am, and my continuous recovery has given me incredible purpose in this world. I began counting calories consumed and miles run in middle school, with the goal of eating a little less and running a little more every day. I believed at my core that I could only be valued and loved if I was as small as possible. I believed myself to be so inherently wrong, and broken, and abnormal that I couldn’t possibly deserve food in my stomach or peace in my own head. I saw losing weight as having a very specific end goal: happiness. As soon as I lost enough weight, as soon as I became small enough, I myself would be enough. I would be happy with the person I was and other people would love me, too.
It wasn’t until college, when I was at my lowest point of starving myself, that I learned that this was not a plausible or sustainable path to self-acceptance. One of the most pivotal moments of my own (still on-going) recovery process was when I realized that my eating disorder was a set of symptoms, a manifestation of deep unhappiness with the person I was. I also think, in my case, it was a way to deny and distract myself from the fact that I knew I was gay and wanted to be anything but. I tried for years to starve, binge, and purge my sadness away, with absolutely no success. Eventually, I had to show up to my own life and try to find some sort of peace with who I was.
So, for me personally, being in the closet definitely fueled my eating disorder, and coming out helped liberate me from it. Unfortunately, though, coming out didn’t make these disordered patterns of eating and exercising vanish overnight. I felt deeply uprooted when I started seeing these eating patterns—that I had held for almost half my life—as something I needed to change for my own survival. As strange as it sounds, I became depressed as I grieved my eating disorder. I felt lost without it, and finding a life without it was full of scary unknowns. I did eventually find passions and interests outside of my eating disorder, including activism and raising awareness about eating disorders themselves. Still, I consider it to be one of the hardest things I have ever done.
I also think that being gay and dating complicates my recovery, as it is easier to compare my body to theirs and make myself feel inadequate as a result. Of course, every body is entirely different, with its own structure, history, metabolism, and genes, so it’s far from a fair comparison. But, when you see society compare women’s bodies to each other every day, it can be hard to just shake off that snap judgement yourself.
So what does this all mean when it comes to your daughter? You asked whether her coming out or her eating disorder could have caused one another, but in short, I think “cause” is a tricky word in a case like this one. It forces you to think of your daughter’s experiences as having a single pathway of cause and effect: either she is gay because she has an eating disorder, or she has an eating disorder because she is gay.
It’s entirely possible that the pain many feel when coming out to themselves and their community is a contributing factor in developing an eating disorder as a coping mechanism. Eating disorders are symptoms of something deeper, a way for many people to control, numb, or self-regulate emotions that we are told are unacceptable. When we think of eating disorders in this way, it’s much easier to see how “LGBTQ-identifying individuals were more likely to have an eating disorder or disordered eating habits than heterosexual peers in the same group.”
But ultimately, I’d encourage you to think of your daughter’s situation as more of a give-and-take relationship, with both of these significant experiences bouncing off and affecting each other in complex ways.
Lastly, for any other parents out there who are worried about their own child, please know that there are many resources available to help you and your child. You can work to create a home environment that celebrates all body types and treats food as just food, instead of something that determines our worth as human beings. You can make yourself available to listen to your child without judgement if and when they want to talk. You can remember that they did not choose to have an eating disorder. You can love them through the ups and downs of recovery.
Therapy or community support groups can be a great space to work through deeper issues and help aid recovery. While I firmly believe that a person cannot recover from an eating disorder until they are ready and willing to do so, as their parent you also need to think about harm reduction and make sure they are safe. The National Eating Disorders Association has tons of resources, support groups (both online and in-person), and learning materials on their website. You can also call their toll-free hotline at 1-800-931-2237.
Best of luck to you and your daughter, and thank you for reaching out and asking for help <3
Grace is the Senior Managing Editor here at My Kid Is Gay. A graduate of Kalamazoo College in Michigan, she now lives in Portland, Oregon. In her spare time, she can be found reading feminist theory, writing letters, and doing handstands around the world. Follow her on Twitter @gracemanger
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